Though there are no strict rules for writing letters, there are certain standards of style, especially when it comes to formal letters. This section will deal specifically with letters required by English exams, and therefore all the directions given here are meant to instruct writers on how to get through this section of their tests quickly and proficiently.
As with essays, letters require a certain level of structure, though this structure is less rigid. Before starting your letter, you must have an idea of the structure and the “voice” required for the context of the letter. More precisely, you need to understand who is going to be the recipient of the letter and with this in mind, you need to know how to address the reader, how to deliver the contents of the letter, and how to end it.
Letters fall into three basic structural makeups: informal, semi-formal, and formal:
Informal letters are written to friends, family, and close acquaintances, people with whom you are on a first-name basis and with whom you are comfortable speaking freely. You will address the recipient(s) of this type of letter by his or her first name, with the optional use of a greeting such as Dear….
Semi-formal letters are written to people with whom you have regular, though non-professional dealings (by this we mean that you are not working together, but may have a client-provider relationship). These may include, for example, your landlord, tenant, neighbour, mechanic, barber, etc. You will address the recipient of this type of letter with respect, yet with a comfort level based on the fact that you have an established relationship of some sort. You may begin the letter with a formal greeting or a casual one, depending on the level of your relationship. The same holds true for using this person’s first or last name, though the latter is generally “safer”. Another option is to use your relationship status with this person, e.g., Dear Neighbour,
Formal letters are those written to people whom you may or may not know personally, with whom you have only a professional relationship that is not regular, and from whom you need something or wish to offer something. You will always address this person by their full name or last name only, and with a formal greeting and sign-off. You will use formal language and tone of voice and keep the content of the letter strictly focused on the subject that needs to be discussed. You will notice in the greetings list below that only in the formal letter type is there a possibility of addressing a recipient whose name you do not know. Anytime you need to write to an unknown recipient, the tone is automatically formal.
Let’s begin with greetings. These are the opening of the letter in which you focus the attention on the reader: (Note: you do not need to memorize all examples; usually knowing two for each type will be enough to deal with any task on your test.)
|Hey John,||Hello John,||Dear Mr. Smith,|
|Hi (John),||Dear Mr. Smith,||Dear Sir/Madam,|
|John,||Dear John,||Dear Mr. John Smith,|
|Hey buddy,||Hello Mr. Smith,||To Whom It May Concern:|
On an English exam you will be given specific instructions regarding the recipient of the letter, as well as what to say to this person. In some cases the greeting will be provided for you. If this is the case, use the greeting to assess the level of comfort you may have in your tone of voice with this person. If no greeting is provided for you, assess the information given and decide on the proper greeting to begin your letter.
Beginning: Unlike a formal essay, which builds up to a thesis by introducing the topic and related ideas/issues, the letter needs to get to the point very quickly (formal letters), or it can begin with some friendly banter (informal), then move to the main point of the letter soon thereafter. In other words, although this is not a traditional “introduction”, the reason for writing the letter needs to be made clear in the first paragraph. As far as letters written for tests go, you should not exceed three paragraphs, which is why you need to be clear and straightforward right from the beginning.
Based on the directions to the task you have received, ascertain the tone of voice. If the letter is written to a friend to thank him for an invitation, for instance, begin with a friendly question, like How’s it going? or an observation, like Long time no write. In a semi-formal letter, you can begin with a polite question, like How are you? or a good wish, such as I hope all is well with you and your family—then get directly to the point, I’m writing to let you know….
In a formal letter, begin with a quick introduction of yourself (if this is a first correspondence) or a quick reference to a previous meeting/correspondence, such as My name is…, or Thank you for your letter/email of 21st March….
Next, clearly and in a straightforward manner state the reason for writing the letter:
(I) Just wanted to ask you…, let you know…, tell you, see if you wanted to…, say hi…, etc.
I was just wondering…, thinking about you…, talking to Lisa and she said…, etc.
I’m writing in regards to…, to let you know…, to request that you…, about…
I am writing in regards to…, to inform you that…, in response to…, to lodge a complaint against…,
It has come to my attention that…,
I wanted to bring to your attention…,
Middle: The task you will be given on a language test will always tell you what comes next. You will be given specific instructions as to what to write. This will generally be an expansion of the point made in the first paragraph. For example, if you are writing a letter of complaint, then you will have made this clear in the first paragraph. In the second paragraph you will likely explain the situation in detail, such as what happened, who is responsible, what are the results/consequences, and so on. Again, you need to be careful to stay on topic and not go too far off the task by being overly creative. Yes, you do need to create a backstory for the situation, but no, you do not need to write a novel. Remember that 150 words is not very long, and you need to resist the urge to over-explain.
This paragraph should get directly into the “story” of your overall idea. In this paragraph, there is little to distinguish the different forms (informal, semi-formal, and formal) because there is no need to address the recipient here. This is the story-telling or information-providing part of the letter. Get to the ideas you need to convey and move on.
Ending: The last paragraph will usually be used as a call-to-action. This means that you will end this letter by asking the recipient to do something, such as fix a problem, provide (more) information, or address a situation. You may need to remind the recipient that there are consequences to his or her inaction. In other cases you may be asked to suggest actions that you, the letter writer, will take, such as fixing a problem, forwarding particular information, or addressing a situation. On some occasions you may be asked to provide further information about your reasons for the letter. In any case, get this point across quickly and clearly.
Ending the letter also depends on what was the purpose of writing it. If you have written to apologize for something, for instance, end with a positive outlook on future behavior. If you wrote to complain about something, end with a show of tolerance and allow the recipient of the letter to address the issues in the letter before you take further steps. Always, however, try to end the letter on a positive note.
Closing: Sometimes you may want a one-sentence closing to the letter. This might be an indication that you are awaiting a reply (I look forward to hearing from you…, Thank you in advance for your attention to this matter…,) or that you know this will require some action by the recipient (I apologize for the inconvenience…,), etc. If the letter does not require this type of closing, then do not force one into it. In informal letters, this closing may be a final recall of a fond memory or some other friendly ending (can’t wait to see you again, write back soon, don’t be a stranger, etc.).
Lastly, end the letter with an appropriate sign-off. This is the word(s) just before your name.
|See you,||Take care,||Best regards,|
|Miss you,||Best Wishes||Respectfully yours,|
Informal sign-offs have a much greater range. If you feel that the relationship between you and the recipient of the letter is very close, you may end with Love, Affectionately, XO, Kisses, Hugs, etc. The semi-formal and formal sign-offs should not show friendship, but rather a relationship of mutual respect.
Of course the best way to understand all of the above is to see it in action. Let’s look at a letter written by a test taker:
The task: You are looking for a part-time job as a football coach. Write a letter to the manager of the football club. In your letter:
Explain what experience and special skills you have
Tell him/her when you think you could start
Here is the letter as it was written:
Dear Sir / Madam:
My name is _______ and I am a senior sport teacher for a grade 10 student at St. Mary’s higher secondary College in Toronto, Ontario. I am writing this letter to apply for a position of a part-time football coach as advertised in the “Daily News” on 17th of February, 2014. (good start)
I have had almost 10 years of experience in the field of sports especially as a football coach. I have an unique talent skills to identify the other people strength as well as their problems in weak areas. It helps to analysis their problem and provide a better solution to improve as they grow as player (this sentence has usage issues that make reading it a little slow and difficult). Additionally (additional to what?), I got the regional district award last year for the best coach.
I would appreciate it if you would give this opportunity as a part-time football coach. It helps me to improve our district level player’s bench strength in our national team. I would prefer to work in the evenings and at the weekends (you are applying for a job—you cannot make demands in the introduction letter) and I can start from the beginning of March 1st week.
I look forward to hearing from you in the near future.
Word count: 187, not including the greeting and final name.
To make things easier, we have edited the letter so as to view it with correct and proper English (yes, the student lost marks for grammar, usage, and other language-related errors (go over the changes and identify the errors made), as well as the necessary changes to meet the standards of letter writing:
Dear Sir / Madam: (If you are writing to a specific person, it is a good idea to address them directly: e.g., Dear Mr. Smith, (you can make up a name), though the greeting used here is also “safe”.)
My name is xxxxxxx. I am a senior sports teacher for grade 10 students at St. Mary’s Higher Secondary College in Toronto, Ontario. I am writing this letter to apply for a position as a part-time football coach, as advertised in the “Daily News” on 17th, February, 2014.
(This paragraph is perfect; it begins with a simple, short sentence: My name is ______. It then provides information about the writer, states clearly why he is writing the letter, and where he heard about the job posting.)
I have almost 10 years’ experience in the field of sports, especially as a football coach. I have a unique talent identifying others’ strengths and weaknesses. I find that it helps to analyze my players’ problems and provide suggestions to improve as they grow. Consequently, I received the regional district award last year for Best Coach.
(This paragraph does exactly what the task asks for: experience, special skills, and even recognition for these.)
I would greatly appreciate this opportunity to be a part-time football coach at your club. I hope I can help improve our district-level players’ bench strength for our national team. I can start at the beginning of March.
I look forward to hearing from you in the near future.
(Again, the last paragraph and closing fill the requirements of the task: when can the writer start? As well, he gives an indication of what he hopes to do for the club in the future. He also provides a call-to-action for the recipient.)
Yours faithfully, (well-chosen sign-off: a coach needs to be loyal and trustworthy to his players and his manager.)
Let’s look at another example:
The task: You are experiencing financial problems and want to ask your landlord if you can pay your rent late. Write a letter to your landlord. In your letter explain:
Why you are writing to him
Why you cannot pay the rent
When you will pay the rent.
Dear Mr. Smith,
I hope you and your family all are well. I am writing in connection with a problem of paying my rent for this month and would request you to provide some alternative solutions. (state the problem; there is no need yet to ask for action)
Our (this brings in information that is not necessary: who is our? Wife, roommate, sister, etc.?) college management increased the fees structure of the current fiscal year without any early notification (do you work at the college, are you a student?). Due to this sudden increase, therefore, and management changes, I have to close the previous balance amount (this sentence is unclear). Given the situation, I have already paid all the amount which I have earned through my part-time job. As a result of this uninformed change, I do not have enough money to pay rent for this month. (This last sentence is the only one that is clear and necessary here. Do not over-extend the “story” to the point where it no longer makes sense.)
I would appreciate it if you could pay (the landlord should pay? Why?) or arrange some alternative solution to overcome this situation; will pay or return this amount next month 20th March 2013. Apologize for the inconvenience caused. (Who is apologizing? There is no subject here.) I hope this will not affect our relationship.
word count: 149, not including name.
Here is the letter rewritten:
Dear Mr. Smith,
I hope you and your family are well. I am writing in connection with a problem I am having of paying my rent for this month and would like to request an extension on my rent payment date.
Unfortunately, my college increased the fees structure for the current fiscal year without any early notification. I had planned my finances according to the previous budget, and now find myself a little short. Due to the sudden increase, therefore, I do not have the rent fee available at this time.
I apologize for causing you this problem; however, I would appreciate it if you could suggest some alternative solution to overcome this situation, or allow me to pay the rent amount next month along with March’s rent. Again, I apologize for the inconvenience caused, and I assure you this will not happen again. I hope that this will not affect our relationship.
word count: 156, not including name.
Notice that the letter does not have to be long in order to convey the message as required by the task. In cannot, however, be below the 150 word mark (for most tests).
To sum up: If you are writing a letter for a test, make sure you know what you need to say, which paragraph to say it in (usually the same order as the task presents it), and how to address the recipient. Get to the point quickly, explain only as much as necessary (don’t get carried away with the story), and end with the call-to-action.